On the Beach: 9½ Apocalypses

Original cover of The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

Though I’ve never lived near the ocean, I’ve had a long and personal relationship with the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Though it may not have tides, as North America’s largest body of fresh water, it has the moods and rages of an ocean: playful and quiet one day, murderous the next. My grandparents’ small beach on old Highway 61 (the same one immortalized in the Dylan song) would look entirely the same for seasons, until a brutal storm blew through, picking up a tonnage of rock and tossing it as easily as giants playing catch. The beach was the end of things, both immutable and changing at once, a punctuated equilibrium of geologic forces working themselves out on a day-to-day basis.

In the end, the changing constancy of the hard line between land and water makes a lovely metaphor for the end. Of everything. One the screen and on the page, it’s surprising to think of how many creators end their apocalypses on a beach. Here are nine (and possibly 10) novels that find themselves on the beach at the finale, starting from or working towards that rough edge.

On the Beach, by Nevil Shute
On the Beach takes place in Melbourne, the southernmost major city in Australia, maybe nine months after the Northern Hemisphere annihilated itself in a nuclear war. The deadly radiation has heretofore been kept north of the equator, but the seasonal weather patterns will change soon, dropping death like a curtain onto all of humanity huddled on the southern edge of things. The tone of this novel is strangely quiet. Various people maintain through serious delusion—a young wife with an infant, who worries over a garden that she will never see bloom; a British Navy man who persists in imagining his family alive in England—but no one much bothers them about it. Some drink; some farm; some hold to a chain of command. There’s a gentle humaneness to humanity’s last interactions, in sharp contrast with many other novels on this list.

Which is why it’s strange I found it so difficult to read: the commonplace feel of the interactions makes Schute’s end of it all feel that much more real, that much closer to my everyday, even at a 70-year remove. (One of the reasons even much older end times fictions feel timely is the stripped down technology.) When my mother was in college, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, scant years after On the Beach was published, students hung a banner that read “I’m all right, Jack,” which were words displayed on one of the beaches in this novel—a last testimony of a near-dead humanity, a nuclear age “Kilroy was here.” Oof.

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
I read most of Vonnegut in one year-long binge, so it all tends to run together in my mind. Even so, Cat’s Cradle stands out. The plot (insofar as there is one) follows the three children of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional member of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. In addition to shepherding in the atomic age, Hoenikker also, in his free time, engineered a scientific lark called ice-nine, a seed crystal that can convert water at room temperature to ice. The martial and apocalyptic applications of such a thing become obvious with just a moment of thought; consider dropping ice-nine in Lake Superior, or, heaven forbid, the ocean. Vonnegut’s style tends to something both funnier and bleaker than gallows humor: something like satire, but more surreal. It ends, as the world ends, on a beach, with our hapless narrator meeting up with the founder of an ironic religion and un-ironic Hoosiers both. Though not as explicitly anti-war as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle nonetheless deals in the horrors of the arms race and technology’s inevitable devastation, right there on the edge.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson
While David Markson is better known as a post-modernist and philosophical writer—the title Wittgenstein’s Mistress being something of a post-modern joke, insofar as that’s a thing—this explicitly a post-apocalyptic tale. The possibly unnamed narrator (maybe it’s Kate, but who’s to say) types Twitter-length paragraphs into a typewriter at intermittent moments. She’s living on a beach, in a beach house, in a world where all animal life, save for herself, is dead. It’s hard to say how long this has been so; long enough at least for her to circumnavigate the world, go mad, and come back to herself enough to write into the void. If you have a better background in philosophy than I (there’s a lovely introduction in some editions by David Foster Wallace, who has just that) you could find more intellectual delights in this book. Myself, I found it achingly lonely and weirdly prescient, a pseudonymous writer shouting into a faceless and possibly nonexistent void (if that’s not too much of a paradox). Who was your last follower on Twitter? Are they even real? Are you?

(Sidebar: Speaking of DFW, it’s possible Infinite Jest should be included in this list. The last line of Markson’s novel—“Someone is living on this beach”—stands as counterpoint to Wallace’s in Infinite Jest—“And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.” Wallace’s novel is arguably science fictional, existing in a satirical late-capitalist corporatocracy. The nominal plot involves a video that cannot be looked away from once viewed; a lethally addictive media. You can argue amongst yourselves about the levels of post-modernism and apocalypse in these novels; what fun! Either way, be it apocalypse or not, Infinite Jest ends on that contemplative shore, watching the tides.)

The Wild Shore, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Wild Shore is Kim Stanley Robinson’s first published novel. It is also the first in a trilogy that imagine possible futures of Orange County, California. (In this, the trilogy is like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, about a people who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” I’ve always liked that complex future tense.) The Wild Shore takes place a half a century after the United States was mostly obliterated due to widespread nuclear detonations of unknown origins. The community of San Onofre is largely pastoral, though through the tutelage of local history-keeper Tom Barnard, its denizens understand something of what the country has lost. When they begin to treat with the more worldly city of San Diego, the real bildungsroman begins, following young Henry (and his fellow citizens) into childhood’s end, both societally and personally. Nobody much writes post-apocalyptic pastorals anymore, but The Wild Shore stands on a strange pivot between that lapsed genre and the later, bleaker version of ash and despair. It’s fitting that Robinson’s first novel starts on a shore, as he, more than any other science fiction writer around, is the writer of beaches: from the final, thrilling moments tumbling in the water at the end of Aurora, to the drowned city of New York 2140, his novels tend to seek out that liminal space.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Oryx & Crake opens with the self-named Snowman, on a beach, surrounded by child-like primitive humans he calls Crakers. Humanity has been wiped out, replaced by these simple beings. As he hikes inland to the ruined corporate compound RejoovenEsence to forage for supplies, he meditates on how the world came to this state: peopled mostly by antediluvian innocents, except for a few, dirty scavengers who remember the world as it was, as our world, one of technology and literature. The novel moves from the beach inland, which is a notable reversal. Atwood sketches a pastoral that is anything but desirable, and walks the reader back through time to uncover how such a dubious utopia came to be. Leave it to Atwood to rip the pastoral form to pieces; the simple life is not simple at all.

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace
The Pesthouse occupies a ruined America, half a millennia or more from when pestilence and geological cataclysm toppled our technological society, and follows Margaret and Franklin through the shattered landscape, on their quest eastward to find the ocean, and there, to board a ship to some magically perfect Europe. It is in many ways the reversal of the typical American pioneer story, which heads westward to the promise of open land and new beginnings. (Which is not to say that, historically speaking, the land was either open nor the beginnings new, but this is the American Dream we’re talking about; Margaret and Franklin’s  apocalyptic quest is just as illusory.) They end on the shore after myriad trials, and there must make the choice to continue on to Solla Sollew, or turn back westward to the heart of America. As an American reader, I occasionally bridled at Crace’s use of dialect—that is not how we sound —but there are plenty of observations of the American temperament that simply could not be made by an American (Crace is British), and that I found fascinating. The beach in this one is a mirage, just there over the next hill, where all our American dreams can come true.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
We are introduced to the unnamed boy and father on The Road, heading toward the ocean. They’ve been living in a cabin in the wasteland the world has become; all life, down to the bacterial, appears to be dead. Their journey is a grotesque picaresque punctuated by all manner of horrors, but the dream of the sea and its redemption are forefront. The boy and his father are “the good guys.” But when they reach the sea, it’s just as dead as everything else, a slopping soup of iodine and salt. While the beach isn’t the place of salvation the two expect, it still gives the boy his next transition—maybe not precisely from boy to man, but something close and intimate, not unlike an adoption. “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery,” McCarthy writes in the final lines. The image of trout in the water is a form of metonymy for the human spirit—cool and deep and hidden, less mercurial than the ocean, but just as vast.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan
This novel opens generations after the zombie apocalypse, in a society penned in by both the hungry dead and a rigid societal structure. It follows self-involved teen Mary on her bildungsroman, starting with her unlucky placement in her fenced society and traveling out into the wider world after the fences are breached. Mary is an intensely unlikeable protagonist, well more focused on finding the mythical ocean than on the well-being of anyone around her. She learned of the ocean from her mother, who told her fairy tales of water so vast you could never see the end. The one she finds isn’t anything she expected—less a dream than another place strewn with the dead. Her final moments on the beach have a stark, downbeat beauty, even while they lay waste to her childish dream.

The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett
At the opening of The Space Between the Stars, we find Jamie Allenby shivering out the last fevers of a lethal plague that has annihilated 99.9 percent and then some of a human race far flung over dozens of inhabited planets. Jamie sets out on a journey through empty worlds,  attempting to get home to the Northumbrian coast of England, where she hopes her estranged lover still lives. The image of seaglass, tumbled smooth through the action of water and tides, wends its way through the novel, a metaphor for the grinding action of trauma and recovery on our protagonists, and everyone else left. The novel ends quite literally on a beach, alongside people quietly rock-picking their way through the end—and then on to a tentative beginning, putting together the broken pieces of the world.

What stories of the apocalypse have affected you the most?

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